31, December 2019 § 2 Comments
Epicureanism. Living gracefully within the garden of nature.
The Aegean Center students and staff spend a month each fall living and studying in the Villa Rospigloisi, in Pistoia, Italy. Besides classes in drawing and photography, we learn about Renaissance art and travel most days to see masterworks, returning with gratitude each evening to our villa in the hills. We often linger in the garden in the hours before dinner, watching the light play over the 400 year old magnolia trees, listening to the fountain splash and enjoying the aroma of food coming from the kitchen. We have few distractions, plenty of time to converse, and delicious home cooked meals. The combination of study and simple living create a joyous and rewarding month.
Our Villa Garden in Tuscany
The fact that we are studying in Italy and Greece compels me to introduce a short conversation about ancient philosophers to my students. To make this interesting we read short synopses of seven different philosophies of the ancient world and see which of these resonates with their ideas of how to live a good life. Through a series of questions most of my students this term decided that they identified with Epicureanism. One student decided he was a nihilist, though that wasn’t on the list, and a few were drawn to Neoplatonism.
Epicurus was a 3rd BCE philosopher who believed that through elimination of fears and desires (ataraxia) people would be free to pursue simple pleasures to which they are naturally drawn. His followers were known as the Garden People and worked to banish superstition and cultivate a rational understanding of nature. Unlike many other philosophical discourses, women were allowed and urged to join his circle. Epicureans felt that discovering simple pleasures and living a prudent life leads to the greatest social happiness, that understanding the power of living within nature’s limits was essential. The word Epicureanism is misunderstood now as advocating hedonism but the philosopher himself said that a person can only be happy and free by living wisely, soberly, and morally. He said, “Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little”. Our intention is to create an arts program with echos of this joyful search for individual happiness. We stress living with few material requirements, eating food prepared with pure ingredients and being in nature. We have no pretensions to luxury and yet we provide a wonderfully rich and fruitful atmosphere in which students can achieve their best . When simple wants are satisfied we have a deeper appreciation for the aesthetics aspects of life, of beauty, of art.
In contrast to my students, I tend toward the Stoic philosophy. Again, modern understanding of this philosophy misinterprets Stoicism as merely censoring strong emotions. Marcus Aurelius and Epitectus elucidate the philosophy of Stoicism as a guide to find peace; integrity being the chief good. Epitectus said, ““Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” What he believed was true education consists in recognizing that each individual has their own will and cannot be compelled or hindered by anything external. He felt that individuals are not responsible for the thoughts that arrive in their consciousnesses though they are completely responsible for the way in which they use them. “Two maxims,” Epictetus wrote, “we must ever bear in mind—that apart from the will there is nothing good or bad, and that we must not try to anticipate or to direct events, but merely to accept them with intelligence.”
Filigree of Wildflowers on Paros
And, “Wisdom means understanding without any doubt that circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they may. People behave as they will.” Finding that my ideals on how to live aligned best with the Stoics I also realised it aids my teaching; empowering me to honour each individual‘s place in the hierarchy of learning, reconfirming that competition has never been an effective teaching tool. I also recognise that what I say and what I teach will be taken by each student to mean what they interpret it to be and not always what I have said. Patience and being an attentive listener are paramount in a teacher but Stoicism also illustrates that 14 different students will have 14 different approaches to a given lesson. Each student will need specific help to elicit their best qualities. It’s not about meeting my standards as much as it is about their comprehension. And, of course, a teacher must accept that each group has its own personality. Fortunately in this group, they were mostly Epicureans by nature.
Yellow & Blue Paros Spring
15, August 2017 § Leave a comment
Raphael’s Drawings: at the Ashmolean & Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave
At the end of the session this last spring John and I traveled to England to spend a few days in Oxford. We went to see a show of Raphael’s drawings at the Ashmolean, a collection of over hundred and twenty of his original works of art. Drawing exhibitions are far and few between and I was particularly anxious to see this one because Raphael’s draftsmanship is extraordinary and difficult to find and see in person.
It has been said that drawing, within the visual arts, holds the position of being closest to pure thought. (Elderfield) In this sense the drawings allow us to see inside Raphael’s mind as he composed images which would evolve into paintings, frescoes and tapestries. His exploratory line and his imaginative thought process are clearly on view in these works. You feel him working through ideas, expressing emotion with a variety of poses and exploring specific narratives. His drawings are derived from models, imagination, and sometimes from memory. What struck me most was the delicacy and fineness of his workmanship, the exquisite details and the accuracy of his line, his potent understanding of how light describes form. I learned that he often used a stylus to sketch out the preliminary form on the paper before beginning the drawing. This was called a blind line because it did not leave a mark. The drawing was then refined with either metal-point, red chalk, or charcoal. Exploring the spiraling tensions and revealing a staggering knowledge of anatomy he amplified the composition with interlocking negative space and groupings of figures. He was able to reveal the emotional quality of the figures with a minimum of information, sometimes showing only the back of a head or a gesture of the hand to communicate the mood. With rhythm, geometry, and poetry of line his drawings become a testament to the human form as an expression of life force.
On the way back to Athens we stopped in London and were lucky enough to see the exhibition “Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave” at the British Museum. This artist’s encyclopedic knowledge of nature is on show with many drawings done with ink and brush, woodblock and illustrated books. Again I was struck by the detail and careful renderings, the delicacy of his work. I think it was Ruskin who said that in fine art there must be something “fine” and I thought once again, looking at Hokusai, that perhaps this is something we’re missing in much of contemporary art. It seems that the muscular, the shocking and the mundane have more value to us than careful observation and recording of form which is so lovingly revealed in these masterworks. Although the artists lived two and a half centuries apart and on two different continents, although they depict two different cultures, there are common elements to their work. Both artists express the inexpressible through the twisting forms of human anatomy, pushing to discover at some level our common humanity and our extraordinary capacity to endure. Meticulous, patient observation combined with imagination and the desire to reveal truth is the binding principle that brings these two artists forward into our world with enduring quality.
Jane Morris Pack
10, October 2016 § 2 Comments
By: Jun-Pierre Shiozawa
The past month the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts marked the 28th year of its Italy program. The new group of students arrived in early September at the Villa Rospigliosi, the Aegean Center’s home in Italy. Up in the hills overlooking the Tuscan city of Pistoia, the students became accustomed to life at the Villa; classes throughout the day including drawing, photography, writing and theatre, and sharing prepared meals by the Villa chefs, who have been with the Center since the very first years.
The bulk of the Italy program involves touring the great centers of the Italian Renaissance, including Florence, Siena, Venice, Pisa, Pistoia, Rome and for the first time ever for the Aegean Center, Bologna.
In Florence, the Center was able to visit the newly reopened Museum of the Works of the Duomo featuring a new layout which recreates the facade of the Cathedral with original sculptures set in niches. We toured through the great churches and museums of Florence including the Bargello and the Uffizi. As always, the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine was a highlight of the tours in Florence. Inside the chapel the group was able to enjoy thirty minutes to themselves to study and admire the great fresco masterpieces of Massacio and Masolino.
On one rainy day, our bus brought us through the Tuscan hills to Siena, where we were fortunately greeted with clearer skies and sunshine. The Cathedral of Siena was less crowded than usual and we were able to admire its incredible array of sculpture and decor, its fascinating floors and the colorful Piccolimini library.
During our second week in Italy, the Aegean Center visited Venice for three days. Upon arriving, art history professor Jeffrey Carson led the tour through the Piazza San Marco and up in to the Basilica of San Marco to see the original bronze horses, taken from the hippodrome of Constantinople. The next day the Aegean Center toured the great painting museum of Venice, the Accademia and found some of our old favorites, works by Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.
After returning to Venice we continued our tours through Tuscany with a visit to Pisa where we enjoyed a bright sunny day in the “Piazza dei Mirocoli,” (the Plaza of Miracles) with its beautiful marble faced buildings: the Cathedral of Pisa, its baptistery, the Campo Santo and of course, the Leaning Tower. In the baptistery, Studio Arts professor Jane Pack described the innovative work of Nicola Pisano’s pulpit and we were able to hear the incredible acoustics of the baptistery interior as one of the guards made a call in to its dome which echoed with his own response.
The Aegean Center visited Bologna for the first time as well. The home of the oldest university in the world, Bologna welcomed us in its rich array of historical and religious centers, including the Basilicas of San Petronio and San Domenico. Although we were unable to see Giambologna’s Fountain of Neptune (under restoration) and Raphael’s Ectasy of St. Cecilia (currently on loan for the Pushkin Museum’s “Raphael. The Poetry of the Image” exhibition) we were taken by the austere beauty of the medieval and premedieval church complex of Santo Stefano and the energy of the city itself.
The Aegean Center students enjoyed our last meal at the Villa Rospigiliosi and thanked the Villa chefs with a thank you card and applause. Saying farewell to the Villa is always bittersweet, a mixture of sadness and excited anticipation with what lays ahead: Rome and finally Greece!
In Rome, director John Pack led the students through a winding tour of Rome’s downtown. John took the students through its famous piazzas, complete with stops for Granita di Cafe in front of the Pantheon and a trip up the Capitoline hill to view over the ancient Roman forum. The next day Jane led the group through the magical Palazzo Massimo to see its treasures including the bronze Pugilist, the dying Niobid and the lovely garden frescoes from the Villa Livia. Finally on our last day in Rome the Aegean Center woke up at the crack of dawn to visit the Vatican museum and where we had the Sistine Chapel all to ourselves, entering before any other group. We all gasped at Michelangelo’s achievements, awestruck and moved.
Rome marked the final leg of the Aegean Center’s Italian tour and the students then departed for Athens. There, under the characteristically bright Greek sunlight, art history Jeffrey Carson led the students up to the Acropolis to see the monument to the magnificence of the Ancient Athenians: The Parthenon. That night, one of the students, Aria Higgins, invited the entire Aegean Center to dine at her family restaurant, Mama Roux. The last day of touring before the students’ arrival in Paros was at the greatest museum of ancient Greek antiquities in the world, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Now the students have all arrived in Paros, to settle in and prepare for the classes ahead. We are all excited to see what else will be accomplished with this close knit, energetic and talented group of students.
Thank you very much to Bruno-Ken Shiozawa for the use of his photographs for this post
30, January 2016 § 1 Comment
After too long a silence we are posting some past events bringing us up to the present, 2016. Like always we will try our best to stay more current…
Last September our students had the privilege to meet with Maurizio Seracini in Firenze while we were in residence at the Villa Rospigliosi in Pistoia, Italy. A passionate man whose interests range over physics, engineering and art history, he has been investigating the possibility that Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of The Battle of Anghiari may still exist behind another later fresco on a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. We met him near the equestrian statue in the Piazza della Signoria and had the great honour of accompanying him to view the hall named the Salone dei Cinquecento and hear him talk on the subject. His warm and personal approach brought us all closer to the mystery of the disappearance of this masterpiece which was hailed as the greatest depiction of a battle scene at the time it was created and was copied many times before its eventual disappearance behind another fresco by Vasari. Mr. Seracini has made this search his personal quest.
For a more complete article on his process and work you can read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/science/06tier.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&no_interstitial
Maurizio Seracini is a 1973 graduate in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, he founded the first company in Italy for diagnostic and non-destructive analyses on art and architecture, the Diagnostic Center for Cultural Heritage in Firenze. Adapting technologies from the medical and military fields and other technical measuring instruments he has made possible diagnostics of art and search for art without destroying the artwork itself.
In 2013, Seracini established Great Masters Art Authentication in San Diego California, the first US company dedicated to true scientific authentication of Old Masters art from the 14th to 19th Century.
27, March 2015 § 1 Comment
I wrote a few notes to myself at the beginning of this semester about what I expect from students in my classes. These include a desire that they engage deeply with their work, that they find ways to discuss their progress and their process. I want them to take more responsibility for their learning, to risk more and to be able to play with the material to allow spontaneity. I place similar demands on myself as an artist and an educator. This semester is no exception. I am introducing a new painting method which involves hand refined linseed oil and chalk. This method is somewhat complex at the beginning to explain but allows for more freedom and energy in the paint handling. I wondered what details I need to add and when and how they would adopt the information I was giving them. Would they be able to handle the complexities of the system? All my energies are devoted to communicating clearly the nuances and the particulars.
I take a risk altering my teaching methods each semester. There are some moments that feel as though I were on a high wire without a net. I prepare my lessons but go off in various directions as the moment takes me. I throw away the script and sometimes improvise wholesale. I suppose all teachers with years of experience can do this but I have often felt that vertiginous drop in the lower stomach when you realize you are in free fall. But I am willing to take the chances and the students benefit. I’m not bored and hopefully neither are they.
Hand refined oil and chalk as additions to painting have been researched by Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon, each of whom have valuable insights into this historical method. It involves purifying the organic flax seed oil with alcohol and using psyllium husks to hold and retain the mucilage which is released from the oil. I have been playing with it for just about a year and I find it redefines oil painting. It requires some investment in time for the preparation of the oil but speeds up the painting process considerably as the oil dries quickly and with great body and gloss. It creates effects which resemble early master works which I have been unable to achieve with modern manufactured paint. I felt it was worth the extra work and effort to introduce this new paint to students. As it is my first semester doing so, I await their results before I can judge. The risk will probably pay off, but at any rate allowing the students to watch me take the risk could be just as instructive.
13, May 2014 § 6 Comments
by Stephanie Dissette
The decision I made to study with the Aegean Center five years ago, as a gap-year student (only planning on one semester, then staying two years), has completely defined and outlined my adult life. Now, I have a bachelor’s degree in art history and a fine arts minor from the American University of Paris. I will begin a postgraduate degree this fall with Warwick University’s History of Art (Venice stream) postgraduate program. Eventually, I hope this will lead to a career as an art history professor.
When I started with the Aegean Center, I had no intention of becoming an artist or art historian – I just wanted to see the world. At the time, I thought even simply visiting Italy and Greece would satisfy: the art was a perk.
Please understand, contrary to popular belief, not all gap-year students travel in order to party and relax before getting serious about school. I can still hear my high-school guidance counselor warning, “the longer you wait to go, the less likely you’ll actually make it through college.” What an idiot. To be fair, I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where at least three-quarters of students who continue on to higher education chose a state school, or at least stay within about 3-4 hours of home at another Midwest college or university. Students who don’t feel certain about their goals for college (what 18-year old is ever certain anyway…?) usually go to the nearby junior college, saving money the first couple years, and then finish their degree elsewhere. I bet most students my old counselor deals with (who don’t choose one of those obvious, typical paths) have no intention of continuing their education at all. I bet, just like the parents of some of my friends, that counselor was thinking, “what parent in her right mind would spend that kind of money and let her kid go that far away, just to see it all wasted on partying abroad?”
Well, my mom couldn’t spend that kind of money, for one. I had some help from my grandparents, but otherwise managed a lot of help through scholarships and work-study. And as far as sending me so far away… well, she knows there is a lot more to learn in life than what any school can offer, and looked forward to my travels. The best part of my counselor’s lack of faith in my future education: I was an honor’s student, who participated in many extra-curricular activities, and, of the 997 students that graduated from my high school that spring, I ranked in the top 10% academically. Even if none of that were true, even if I was the kind of student that chose school abroad to party as an under-21 (where it is legal), there was no way to avoid the kind of education I received with the Aegean Center.
In one word, the Aegean Center is an education in perception. Whether through the literal or philosophical reading of the word, there is perhaps no better place in the world to challenge one’s perception than with the Aegean Center. If you read this blog often, you know about the Friday hikes – the communion with nature that refreshes the spirit, but perhaps more importantly teaches purity in light, color, planes, even materials – and how they open up the world in a way many of us have forgotten or possibly never experienced. The courses follow a classical approach to fine art, based on masterworks, providing a basis many well-respected art schools have stopped offering their students. The blog also features articles the teachers have written about exhibits they’ve visited or projects they are working on. Perhaps its time to re-read those articles and recognize the freshness of their perspectives and techniques compared to the typical, contemporary take on art: a true Renaissance, if you’ll excuse the pun, in classical approach. My personal favorite: stories about the month touring Italy.
Chicago doesn’t have a very impressive collection of Renaissance art – the city is better known for its world-class impressionist collection and modern-contemporary art. The only connection I had to Italian Renaissance art in my first experiences abroad was an appreciation for public outdoor art – Chicago is packed full of that! And while I’m a big fan of the Chagall wall, Calder’s Flamingo, and the Picasso in Daley Plaza; for me, they hardly compare to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, or the Michelangelo David. That perception, of course, is all about personal preference. I just never had the context before to understand where that preference came from. Now, I do.
And it is easier for me to make these comparisons now, after finishing my degree in art history, but getting there is its own story too. For the record, I am the wrong kind of art history student – at least traditionally speaking. Most art history students are excellent at remembering detailed information, especially names and dates; my memory does not hold those kinds of details very well. I’m lucky to get the century right with most works, and even if I can talk you through exactly where a painting hangs in the remarkable chasm of the Louvre, or break down the full story of nearly any biblical subject in an artwork and tell you why you should care about it, I will always double check my notes for names and dates. Definitely did that writing the previous paragraph here (at least now we have the internet!). And all the ways I am different or wrong compared to the typical, traditional art history student, I credit to the Aegean Center. First off, in my experience, very few art history students have a background in fine art. Many come from families that exposed them to every museum imaginable, or took a liking to art early on and chased it themselves; however, very few have picked up a pencil, crayon, paintbrush, or camera for anything artistic since they were in grade school. In fact, most would probably tell you that they are terrible at anything creative. Can anyone please explain to me how someone who does not consider him or herself creative ends up studying art history?
The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, uncreative people (or those without interest in being creative) do not study art history. The people who choose to study art history definitely have a creative side, whether they’ve acknowledged it or not. The Aegean Center embraces students with all levels of experience because they know the secret: art isn’t just talent, it’s work! Yes, anyone CAN draw. Anyone CAN paint. Anyone CAN take a beautiful photograph, then edit and print it like a real artist does. The trick is hard work, studying the great masters, and committing to practice. I may never display any artworks of my own in galleries or magazines, but I can paint properly with oil paints if I so desire, and my drawing does still improve, even when I stop practicing for a couple months now and again. The American University of Paris (AUP) does offer fine arts courses, and in fact, just recently launched a fine arts major (in addition to the minor). While most of my fine arts experience comes from the Aegean Center, AUP caught my attention by valuing the education the Aegean Center offered, and gave me full university credits for all the work I accomplished through the Aegean Center’s rigorous courses. There is currently one fine arts course AUP students must complete in order to graduate with an art history degree called “Materials and Techniques of the Masters.” I remember explaining the course to teachers at the Aegean Center, hardly containing my excitement, and then expressing honest disbelief when I realized how few students in the course had any background in the fine arts, as well as how many of them were seniors, graduating that same semester. Those students hadn’t ever specifically studied the materials and techniques used in all the works they had spent up to four years analyzing until their final semesters. Enter me: a number’s dummy, yes, but also the only one in the room who cared whether a work was made in tempera or oils… better yet, I’m the only one who could usually guess the material before asking.
Consider this: does a painting receive the same reaction, and hold the same majesty, projected in a classroom as it does when viewed in the flesh? While I’d like to think I understood the difference as a kid wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, it probably wasn’t until my time with the Aegean Center that I really became aware of the difference. I have shown so many of my favorite artworks to friends and family through photos I’ve taken, or pictures I find online, and they never really compare to the awe acquired in being inches away from that full-scale work. Before I even committed to studying art history, the Aegean Center was preparing me to better understand and appreciate art, architecture, and history.
That also explains why, researching masters programs in art history, I had to somehow still experience the art in person; and I couldn’t do that with Renaissance works in Chicago. Starting this September, I’ll have come full circle – back to Italy, the same way the Aegean Center begins its fall semesters. Attending a British school as an American, I’m already preparing to stand out in more ways than one. I’ll probably be the wrong kind of student, again – I wish it all started tomorrow.
Thank you, Parian family, for helping me see fully and understand deeply. I couldn’t be more pleased for what I see coming next.
2, April 2014 § Leave a comment
by Liz Carson
Because of my husband’s work, I get requests for a method for viewing art by friends and students. It does not matter if it is a painting or a photograph as they may be viewed with the same criteria.
First, stand far enough away to see the whole image and evaluate what components it’s made of: size, shape and tonality. This is part of the artist’s intent and not only the content of the image; if it is constructed with large blocks of dark it will affect your response long before you examine the details of the work.
Usually artists put the largest and darker elements at the bottom for weight and gravity; if they are high in the picture plane it can create a depressing atmosphere. Light, large blocks at the bottom can create instability but at the top they give openness and exhilaration.
After you have assessed the work at a distance walk half way toward the piece and evaluate the contents. The content and the composition combine to deliver the meaning of the piece.
The overall atmosphere of a piece is as important as the details. Look where the light is falling on the objects. The artist wants you to notice this same pattern.
In a museum, don’t read labels until after you have perused all of the images in the room and decided what pleases you. Then move into position to look at the work from a distance first before you look at it close up. Read the label only afterwards as the work will communicate without words.
Liz Carson has taught photography at the Aegean Center for more than thirty years. She has shown her work internationally and published a photographic essay on the historical Church of One Hundred Doors located in Paros, Greece. Her husband is a poet and the art historian for the Aegean Center.
4, November 2013 § 2 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Euphrosyne Doxiades is a painter and an expert on encaustic, the wax based painting method of the Ancient Greeks. She has been asked to contribute her knowledge of the technique to a conference in Athens which is examining the use of paint on marble surfaces, both architectural and sculptural. She asked my help to recreate a figure which is on a marble disk thought to be from the mid fifth century. The piece is in the museum in Paros and was found in the cemetery excavation near the sea. It was the lid of an urn which may have held the ashes of an athlete who had won a competition for discus throwing.
What remains of the paint is vermillion pigment and there were traces of gold on the head and on the discus which are now missing. We painted vermillion mixed with hot bees wax and mastic directly into the surface of the marble and added gold leaf to the hair and the circle of the discus. The paint was “burned in” using a hot tool and then scraped and polished to a soft shine. Euphrosyne had made previous tests which insured that the paint adheres to the surface even out of doors in full sun.
We had a joyful time recreating this beautiful remnant of ancient culture and perhaps it will contribute to the scholarship as well.
10, December 2012 § Leave a comment
Twice every year, The Louvre Museum (Paris, France) offers a special opportunity to fine art and art history students all over the city – a few Friday nights during their extra hours to present works in the museum, in their first language, in their own words. The fine artists create new pieces, based on works on display in the museum, and exhibit their work alongside their inspiration. Art history students express their passion for some of the best art history has preserved for the world by presenting them, after months of research and preparation, for anyone who comes to the museum on those nights ready to listen.
This year’s theme is “What do you see?” And I am honored, as a current Art History student studying at The American University of Paris, France and as an alumna of The Aegean Center of the Fine Arts, Paros, Cyclades, Greece, to be participating in this special occasion for the second time.
When I mentioned this project to one of my previous professors on Paros, he asked if I would share this experience on The Aegean Center blog, which seems more appropriate than ever considering the work I am presenting this year – the Cycladic Figurines. Yes, that’s right; after a year and a half in Paris studying art history, I chose to focus my presentation on some of the earliest works of Ancient Greece. Something must have stuck… thank you, Jeffrey Carson.
Of course something stuck! Three and a half years ago now, when instead of going straight to college, I chose to take a gap year and attend The Aegean Center, I never could have guessed I would be here now, in Paris, about to present at the Louvre. My time in Italy, studying the Italian Renaissance almost entirely through on-site lectures, and then Ancient Greek art in Athens and on Paros, again, seeing first-hand what I was studying… well, I cannot really explain how much that defined me outside of the obvious: I am an art history major, on an ancient art track, and a fine arts minor in Paris today.
Following the presentations, AUP students are asked to write a short essay about their experience in order to receive credit from the university (following).
By happy coincidence, the final JOP night was the same night as The Aegean Center Student Showcase – hey, if I could not be on Paros that night, awe-struck by the creativity and skills of a new generation of artists, might as well be standing in the Louvre in Paris, explaining to whomever happened to stop and listen why he or she should be awe-struck by some of the earliest figurative work in history!
Thank you, Aegean Center, for getting me this far. I expect this is only the beginning…
With love and gratitude,
(A Paper By: Stephanie Dissette)
For this season’s “Les jeunes ont la parole,” it was my pleasure to present the Cycladic figurines of Pre-Classical Greece. While not my first choice, these figures were amongst my preferred works, as they embody much of why I am here today, in Paris and at AUP – tying-in with the Ancient Art and Architecture course I am currently enrolled in and the Ancient Art track I chose within my Art History Major; and perhaps even more importantly, keeping me connected to Greece and Greek art, my “roots” for why I chose to study Art History to begin with. The theme for this season, “What do you see?” also perfectly accompanied my presentation in particular, as the Cycladic figurines come from approximately 2800-2300 B.C., a period which has virtually no written documentation. This allowed me, as I was studying, and my audience, as they were viewing, to acknowledge an important part of Art History – a lot of what we consider historical fact will only ever be guesswork; in which case, though there are of course those who make a point of becoming experts in the field, anyone’s guess is as good as another’s, so long as one has evidence to support one’s theory.
And so, to begin my presentation I would always ask the audience to look closely at one or more of the figures in front of them, and explain to me what they saw, encouraging all suggestions given and recommending they start out very simply. Reminding my audience that I am a student, I would explain a bit about what it means when we give a formal analysis of a work, and invite them to follow in suit without fear of giving an incorrect perspective. Again, I find these figurines perfect for this sort of exercise in their simplicity – with less “action” or distraction in front of them, the audience is forced to stick to the basics. In this case, many discussed the gendering (about 40% said male, about 60% female), the shape and size, the material used (mostly when prompted), and the prominent noses and strange folding of the arms. Many, of course, also looked on with blank stares until I fed them a few possible answers. My favorite description came a couple of times, which was a comparison to the heads of Easter Island – brilliant! This proved to be the perfect introduction, allowing me to continue with a more in-depth analysis and investing my audience in a stake of the “final answer,” which was of course that there is no right answer.
But without getting too stuck on that, I would proceed by telling them about the Cyclades, the Eastern Greek Islands where the figures originated and where most of them were found. I offered two maps: one of grander Greece and the Aegean region, allowing a placement within Europe and one that focused in on the Cyclades Islands, and offered a close look at Paros, the island where the marble originated. Usually, I would take a moment to express that these figures are essentially the root of all Greek figurative sculpture and that Parian marble is still considered one of the best types in the world, was used all the way into the Late Hellenistic period in Greece (with sculptures such as the Venus de Milo), and that one can still visit the Ancient Marble Quarry on Paros. With the maps still in front of my audience, I would also explain the connection these islands shared with each other and even out as far as Egypt, Crete, and Turkey through trade routes, which may help explain some of the influence the figures might have received from other cultures as well as some of the influence they had on future figurative sculpture. Not every group I presented to really needed all of these details, but I did try to get as much of this information as possible to provide a context for these figurines which we know so little about, so few people have ever seen or cared to stop and notice, and to express why one should care about them at all. Whether I made it this far or got stopped in mentioning the Venus de Milo (which many a time required me to give a mini-lecture on that sculpture instead), this always connected me with the next big point: across the board, the grand majority of historians who wrote about the Cycladic figures believe them to be female. I was able to point out the delineated pubic triangles many of the figurines shared, as well as the apparent breasts. For a counter-example, I brought out images of two similar figurines from around the same era that historians believe to be male, as they are missing those two main components. Strangely enough, both of those figures are active, one playing a flute and the other a harp, whereas the female sculptures seem only occupied by holding themselves. This brought up the question, what is there purpose?
Now, here I usually pointed out the stands holding up all of the figurines, and asked my audience if they felt any of these figures could stand on their own. The consensus being no, I also drew their attention to the strangely angled heads of the figures, and suggested that should they be lying down on their backs, the figures would be well supported by their heads. Again, it was time to reiterate that everything I was suggesting is entirely my own perspective based on the many different sources I drew from, and that especially from here on out everything I could offer would be opinion-oriented. Drawing on an old professor’s perspective and words, I offered this phrase to my audience: “Out of the womb, into the tomb; out of the tomb, into the womb.” I argued that the arms crossed around the front of the figures emphasized the fertility or even possible pregnancy of the figures; and considering that nearly every figurine found by archeologists (our only reliable source in excavation) were found in tombs. To me, this combined with their inability to stand, made these figures the perfect symbols of the cycle of life, and perhaps made them an invaluable part of the burial ceremony of the early Cycladic Greeks. This would also explain why they are found in so many different sizes and levels of finishing – should they be a necessary item for burial, no matter what class or income, everyone would need one.
Finally, though this sometimes mixed into to other areas of my presentation, I would focus on some of the stranger questions relating to the figures. While I previously discussed the odd shape of the head, it was also necessary to explain why the only obvious facial feature was the nose. Here is when I would point out Figure 9, which still retains just enough of its original paint to delineate the drawing in of an eye and eyebrows. There are a few others that show paint markings on the face, and one that shows some within the incisions between the toes of a figure. This always opens up a wonderful conversation about the painting of sculpture, something that very few people seem to be aware existed quite commonly in Ancient Greece. There were also those who seemed unconvinced by my fertility argument, referring to other examples we have of “fertility goddesses,” all of whom are very voluptuous. This is another difficult question, and all I could draw upon was my own experience. Keeping in mind the Greek mentality throughout all of what we call Ancient Greece was idealism, I referred to the kore and kouros figures, the idealized versions of Greek youths, considered the best that society had to offer at the time. Then I talked a bit about the Greek diet, which especially in the Cyclades relied mostly on fish, local weeds, and wine – all very light, non-fattening foods. Perhaps the Greek fertility goddess would be slim and fit, whether or not she is meant to symbolize pregnancy or abundance.
Overall, the best aspect of my experience was when someone walked away saying they were impressed, they had never known anything about these figurines or this time period in art before and now know and care about it, and that they were interested in continuing on through the room in chronological order to explore what came after these beautiful, simple figures. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my opinions with all that were willing to listen and encouraging my audience to have their own critical opinions of what they see when they explore art. Participating in this exercise at the Louvre always makes me appreciate Paris, museum culture, and my decision to study Art History more. I am honored to have been a part of this season’s “Les jeunes ont la parole,” and look forward to participating again in the future.
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16, April 2012 § 1 Comment
Euphrosyne Doxiadis, working her persuasive powers and demonstrating her intense passion, gave the students two wonderful lectures this last month. Her first, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, opened their eyes to the high level of artistic wizardry which created the portraits of people living in Hellenistic Egypt in the first century after Christ. These portraits look wonderfully fresh and alive after being pulled from the sand of the desert where they had been affixed to mummies. We wonder at their clarity, color and modern feel. The painting students who are currently learning the four color palette, the same ancient system as was used by the Greek masters, saw the depth and variety this limited palette allows. Euphrosyne went into some detail as to the technical procedure so that the students could realize they are participants in a long line of painting tradition spanning the ages.
The second lecture was equally fascinating. Euphrosyne believes, and has convinced us all, that the Rubens painting in the National Gallery in London, the Samson and Delilah, is a forgery. With precision and evident distaste she pointed out the particular flaws which demonstrate that this could not be an original: the lack of convincing brushwork, the flattened spacial elements, the poor understanding of form, the inky black background that comes against but not behind the figures. All of these things and many more are tell-tale signs that Rubens had no hand in the piece. Her website http://www.afterrubens.org tells the whole story. No one left the lecture with any doubts.
– Jane Pack